As we stated at the conclusion of the first part of our discussion https://answeringallah.com/will-the-real-bart-ehrman-please-stand-up-pt-1/, Ehrman believes that certain verses in the NT identify the Lord Jesus as the human manifestation of the Angel of the LORD, a divine figure that appears quite often in the Hebrew Bible. Ehrman believes that this is the view of the poem that the Apostle Paul incorporated in his letter to the Philippians, specifically in chapter 2, verses 5-11. Scholars commonly refer to this section of Philippians as the Carmen Christi (“Hymn to Christ”). Here is what it says:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Ehrman believes that this poem was composed in the early forties, meaning within ten years of Jesus’ resurrection:
“Some scholars have had a real difficulty imagining that a poem existing before Paul’s letter to the Philippians – a poem whose composition must therefore date AS EARLY AS THE 40s CE – could already celebrate AN INCARNATIONAL UNDERSTANDING OF JESUS…” (How Jesus Became God, p. 259; bold and capital emphasis ours)
In explaining the reason why he rejects the position of some scholars who argue that the Carmen Christi does not speak of the prehuman existence of Christ, but rather focuses on his humanity in order to contrast him with Adam, Ehrman brings up Paul’s view of the Lord Jesus:
“Third, and possibly most importantly, from other passages in Paul it does indeed appear that he understands Christ to have been a preexistent divine being. One example comes from a very peculiar passage in 1 Corinthians, in which Paul is talking about how the children of Israel, after they escaped from Egypt under Moses, were fed while they spent so many years in the wilderness (as recounted in the books of Exodus and Numbers in the Hebrew Bible). According to Paul, the Israelites had enough to drink because the rock that Moses struck in order miraculously to bring forth water (Num. 20:11) followed them around in the wilderness. Wherever they went, the water-providing rock went. In fact, Paul says, ‘the rock was Christ’ (1 Cor. 10:4). Just as Christ provides life to people today when they believe in him, so too he provided life to the Israelites in the wilderness. That would not have been possible, of course, unless he existed at the time. And so for Paul, Christ was a preexistent being who was occasionally manifest on earth.
“Or take another passage, one in which Paul actually does speak of Christ as a second Adam. In 1 Corinthians, Paul contrasts Christ’s place of origin with that of Adam: ‘The first man was from the earth, and was made of dust; the second man is from heaven’ (15:47). What matters here is precisely the difference between Adam and Christ. Adam came into being in this world; Christ existed before he came into this world. He was from heaven.
“And so, the interpretation of the Philippians poem that takes it as an indication that Christ was a kind of ‘perfect Adam’ does not work, on one hand, because the passage has features that do not make sense given this interpretation. And on the other hand, this interpretation is completely unnecessary. It does not solve the problem of an Incarnational Christology–because Paul clearly says in other passages that Jesus was indeed a preexistent divine being who came into the world. That’s what this poem teaches as well.” (Ibid., pp. 261-262; bold emphasis ours)
Ehrman thinks that texts such as Galatians 4:14 suggest that Paul believed that the Lord Jesus was God’s chief angel, in fact THE Angel of the Lord mentioned throughout the OT:
“But this means that in Galatians 4:14 Paul is not contrasting Christ with an angel; he is equating him with an angel. Garrett goes a step further and argues that Galatians 4:14 indicates that Paul ‘identifies [Jesus Christ] with God’s chief angel.’
“If this is the case, then virtually everything Paul says about Christ throughout his letters makes perfect sense. As the Angel of the Lord, Christ is a preexistent being who is divine; he can be called God, AND HE IS GOD’S MANIFESTATION ON EARTH IN HUMAN FLESH. Paul says all these things about Christ, and in no passage more strikingly than in Philippians 2:6-11, a passage that scholars often call the ‘Philippians Hymn’ or the ‘Christ Hymn of Philippians,’ since it is widely thought to embody an early hymn or poem devoted to celebrating Christ AND HIS INCARNATION.” (Ibid., p. 253; bold and capital emphasis ours)
Ehrman further argues that this is the position held by some of the other NT writers as well:
“In the most thorough investigation of Christological views that portray Jesus as an angel or an angel-like being, New Testament scholar Charles Gieschen, helpfully defines the Jewish notion of an angel as ‘a spirit or heavenly being who mediates between the human and divine realms.’ Once Jesus was thought to be exalted to heaven, he was quickly seen, by some of his followers, to be this kind of heavenly mediator, one who obediently did God’s will while he was here on earth. From there, it was a very small step to thinking that Jesus was this kind of being by nature, not simply because of his exaltation. Jesus was not only the Son of God, the Lord, the Son of Man, the coming messiah; he was the one who mediates God’s will on earth as a heavenly, angelic being. In fact, it came to be thought that he had always been this kind of being.”
“If Jesus was the one who represented God in human form, he quite likely had always been that one. He was, in other words, the chief angel of God, known in the Bible as the Angel of the Lord. This is the figure who appeared to Hagar, and Abraham, and Moses, who is sometimes actually called ‘God’ in the Hebrew Bible. If Jesus is in fact this one, he is a preexistent divine being who came to earth for a longer period of time, during his life; he fully represented God on earth; he in fact can be called God. Exaltation Christologies became transformed into incarnation Christologies as soon as believers in Jesus came to see him as an angelic being who performed God’s work here on earth.
“To call Jesus the Angel of the Lord is to make a startlingly exalted claim about him. In the Hebrew Bible, this figure appears to God’s people as God’s representative, and he is in fact called God. And is it turns out, as recent research has shown, there are clear indications in the New Testament that the early followers of Jesus understood him in this fashion. Jesus was thought of as an angel, or an angel-like being, or even the Angel of the Lord–in any event, a superhuman divine being who existed before his birth and became human for the salvation of the human race. This, in a nutshell, is the incarnation Christology of several New Testament authors. Later authors went even further and maintained that Jesus was not merely an angel–even the chief angel–but was a superior being: he was God himself come to earth.” (Ibid., pp. 250-251; bold emphasis ours)
This is a rather shocking assertion on Ehrman’s part since he actually believes that the Hebrew Bible identifies this particular Angel as the visible manifestation of Yahweh God Almighty!
Note, for example, the following quotation where Ehrman discusses Genesis 16:7-14, which speaks of the Angel appearing to Hagar:
“… But then, after referring to this heavenly visitor as the Angel of the Lord, the text indicates that it was, in fact, ‘the LORD’ who had spoken with her (16:13). Moreover, Hagar realizes that she has been addressing God himself and expresses her astonishment that she had ‘seen God and remained alive after seeing him’ (16:13). Here there is both ambiguity and confusion; either the Lord appears as an angel in the form of a human, or the Angel of the Lord IS THE LORD HIMSELF, GOD IN HUMAN GUISE.
“A similar ambiguity occurs two chapters later, this time with Abraham. We are told in Genesis 18:1 that ‘the LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.’ But when the episode is narrated, we learn that ‘three men’ come to him (18:2). Abraham plays the good host and entertains them, preparing for them a very nice meal, which they all three eat. When they talk to him afterward, one of these three ‘men’ is identified explicitly as ‘the LORD’ (18:13). At the end of the story we are informed that the other two were ‘angels’ (19:1). So here we have a case where two angels AND THE LORD GOD HIMSELF have assumed human form–so much so that they appear to Abraham to be three men, and they all eat the food he has prepared.
“The most famous instance of such ambiguity is found in the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-22). By way of background: Moses, the son of Hebrews, had been raised in Egypt by the daughter of Pharaoh, but he has to escape for murdering an Egyptian and is wanted by the Pharaoh himself. He goes to Midian where he marries and becomes a shepherd for his father-in-law’s flocks. One day, while tending to his sheeply duties, Moses sees an astonishing sight. We are told that he arrives at Mount Horeb (this is Mount Sinai, where later, after the exodus, he is given the law) and there, ‘the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush’ (Exod. 3:2). Moses is amazed because the bush is aflame but is not being consumed by the fire. And despite the fact that it is the Angel of the Lord who is said to have appeared to him, it is ‘the Lord’ who sees that Moses has come to the bush, and it is ‘God’ who then calls to him out of the bush. In fact, the Angel of the Lord tells Moses, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Exod. 3:6). As the story continues, the Lord God continues to speak to Moses and Moses to God. But in what sense was it the Angel of the Lord that appeared to him? A helpful note in the HarperCollins Study Bible puts it: ‘Although it was an angel that appeared in v. 2, there is no substantive difference between the deity and his agents.’ Or as New Testament scholar Charles Gieschen has expressed it, this ‘Angel of the Lord’ is ‘either indistinguishable from God as his visible manifestation’ or he is a distinct figure, separate from God, who is bestowed with God’s own authority.” (Ibid., 2. Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism, pp. 56-57; bold and capital emphasis ours)
Since Ehrman believes that Paul and some of the first Christians taught that Jesus is the incarnation of the Angel of Yahweh, and since this Angel is the human appearance of Yahweh himself, this means that Jesus is none other than the very Incarnation of Yahweh Almighty!
How, then, can Ehrman make the argument that no NT writer ever identifies Jesus as Yahweh, when that is precisely what some of the inspired authors taught according to Ehrman’s own view that believers such as Paul proclaimed that Christ is the Incarnation of the OT Angel of Yahweh? If these Christians believed that Jesus is that very Angel mentioned in the Hebrew Bible then this means that according to Ehrman’s own logic, they must have believed that Christ is the human manifestation of Yahweh God Almighty himself.
But it gets a lot worse for Ehrman.
Ehrman argues that the Philippians’ poem not only proclaims that God exalted Jesus to a higher status in order to make the risen Lord equal to himself, but that he even conferred upon Christ the name Yahweh, and commands all creation to worship the risen Lord in the exact same way that Yahweh is supposed to be worshiped according to the prophet Isaiah!
“… For the Philippians poem, Christ started out as divine, but at his exaltation he was made even ‘more divine,’ in fact, HE WAS MADE EQUAL WITH GOD.
“This is a point that is widely agreed upon by interpreters, and it is because of the wording of the final two stanzas of the poem, vv. 10-11. There we are told that God ‘hyperexalted’ Jesus, so that ‘At the name of Jesus / Every knee should bow / Of those in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. / And every tongue confess / That Jesus Christ is Lord / To the glory of God the Father.’ The causal reader may not realize this, but these lines allude to a passage in the Hebrew Bible. And a striking passage it is. According to the original passage as found in Isaiah 45:22-23, it is to Yahweh alone, the God of Israel, that ‘every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess’…
“The prophet Isaiah is quite explicit. There is only one God, NO OTHER. That God is Yahweh. That God has sworn that to NO OTHER shall every knee bow and every tongue make confession. Yet in the Philippians poem, it is not to God the Father–apart from whom, according to Isaiah, ‘there is no other’–but to the exalted Jesus that all the knees will bow and tongues confess. Jesus has been granted THE STATUS AND HONOR AND GLORY of the One Almighty God himself.
“This interpretation of the Christ poem in Philippians shows that VERY EARLY in the Christian movement the followers of Jesus were making audacious claims about him. He had been exalted TO EQUALITY WITH GOD, even though God himself had said that there was ‘no other’ apart from him. Somehow, Christians were imagining that there was indeed ‘another.’ And this other one was EQUAL WITH GOD. But it was not because he was God ‘by nature’–to use a later philosophical/theological term that came to be applied to discussions of Christ’s deity. He was God because God had made him so. But how could he be God, if God was God, and there was only one God? This became the key question of the Christological debates in later times, as we will see. At this stage, all we can say is that early Christians were not bothered enough by this dilemma, or this paradox, to have written anything about it, so we don’t know exactly how they dealt with it.
“One final point to make about the Philippians poem may have occurred to you already. I have been calling the Christology that it embraces ‘incarnational,’ since it portrays Jesus as a preexistent divine being who becomes human. But there is obviously an ‘exaltation’ element in the poem as well, since at Jesus’s resurrection God exalted him to an even higher state that he had before. In a sense, then, this poem provides us with a transitional Christology that combines an incarnation view with an exaltation view. Later authors will move even further away from an exaltation Christology, such that Christ will come to be portrayed AS BEING EQUAL WITH GOD BEFORE HIS APPEARANCE IN THE WORLD–in fact, AS EQUAL WITH GOD FOR ALL TIME. But this is not the view of the Philippians poem. For this beautiful passage, as quoted by and presumably believed by Paul, Christ was indeed a preexistent divine being. But he was an angel-like being, who only after his act of obedience to the point of death WAS MADE GOD’S EQUAL.” (Ibid., pp. 264-266; bold and capital emphasis ours)
One other point needs to be reemphasized at this stage however. If one uses the term high Christology to talk about this kind of incarnational view, the Prologue of John would be presenting a very high Christology indeed—higher than that even in the Philippians poem. For the author of that poem, as for Paul himself, Christ was some kind of angelic being before becoming a human— probably the “chief angel” or the “Angel of the Lord.” And as a result of his obedience to God unto death, he was given an even more exalted state of being as one who was EQUAL TO GOD IN HONOR AND STATUS as the Lord of all. This in itself is a remarkably exalted view of Jesus, the rural preacher from Galilee who proclaimed the coming kingdom of God and who, having ended up on the wrong side of the law, was crucified. But the Prologue of John has an even more elevated view of Christ. Here, Christ is not an angel of God, who was later “hyperexalted” or given a higher place than he had before he appeared on earth. Quite the contrary, even before he appeared, he was the Logos of God himself, a being who was God, the one through whom the entire universe was created. (Ibid., pp. 277-278; bold and capital emphasis ours)
- The Tetragrammaton in the Hebrew Bible, YHWH (= Yahweh), which serves as the personal name of God, was translated in the Greek version by the term Kurios, which comes into English as “Lord.” And so, when the text indicates that every tongue will confess that “Jesus is Lord,” it appears to mean that everyone will acknowledge THAT JESUS HAS THE VERY NAME OF YAHWEH HIMSELF. It is important to note, however, that Jesus is still differentiated from God the Father, since all this is to happen to the Father’s “glory.” (Ibid., p. 381; bold and capital emphasis ours)
Since Ehrman acknowledges that the Carmen Christi affirms that God the Father has made Jesus equal to himself in honor and status, and has even given him the very name Yahweh, which is why the risen Lord shall eventually receive the exact same worship that Isaiah 45:23 says Yahweh is supposed to receive from all creation, how then could he argue that no NT writer ever taught that Jesus is Yahweh or equal to God?
The following lengthy citation from Ehrman does a great job of summing up his position concerning the belief of Paul and certain others regarding Christ:
Other Passages in Paul
The incarnational Christology that lies behind the Philippians hymn can be seen in other passages of Paul’s letters as well. I have already said that Paul understood Christ to be the “rock” that provided life-giving water to the Israelites in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:4) and pointed out that Paul stated that Christ, unlike the first Adam, came from “heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47). When Paul talks about God “sending” his son, he appears not to be speaking only metaphorically (like John the Baptist is said to have been “sent” from God in John 1:6, for example); instead, God actually sent Christ from the heavenly realm. As he put it in the letter to the Romans, “For what the law could not do, God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (8:3). It is interesting that Paul uses this term likeness—just as the Philippians poem did when it spoke of Christ coming in the “appearance” of humans. It is the same Greek word in both places. Did Paul want to avoid saying that Christ actually became human, but that he came only in a human “likeness”? It is hard to say.
But it is clear that Paul does not believe Christ just appeared out of nowhere, the way angels seem to do in the Hebrew Bible. One of the verses in Paul that long puzzled me was Galatians 4:4, in which Paul writes, “When the fullness of time came, God sent his son, born from a woman, born under the law.” I always wondered why Paul would indicate that Christ had been born from a woman. What other option is there, exactly? But the statement makes sense if Paul believed that Christ was a preexistent angelic being. In that case, it is important to point out that Jesus was born in a human way: he did not simply appear as the Angel of the Lord did to Hagar, Abraham, and Moses. Here in the last days he actually was born in the likeness of human flesh, as a child.
Paul says even more exalted things about Christ. In Chapter 2, we saw that some Jewish texts understood God’s Wisdom to be a hypostasis of God—an aspect or characteristic of God that took on its own form of existence. Wisdom was the agent through which God created all things (as in Proverbs 8), and since it was God’s Wisdom in particular, it was both God and a kind of image of God. As the Wisdom of Solomon expressed it, Wisdom is “a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty . . . for she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (7:25–26). Moreover, we saw that Wisdom could be seen as the Angel of the Lord.
Jesus, for Paul, WAS THE ANGEL OF THE LORD. And so he too was God’s Wisdom, before coming into this world. Thus Paul can speak of “the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). Even more striking, Christ can be described as the agent of creation:
For us there is one God, the Father,
from whom are all things and for whom we exist,
and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor. 8:6)
This verse may well incorporate another pre-Pauline creed of some kind, as it divides itself neatly, as can be seen, into two parts, with two lines each. The first part is a confession of God the Father, and the second a confession of Jesus Christ. It is “through” Christ that all things come into being and that believers themselves exist. This sounds very much like what non-Christian Jewish texts occasionally say about God’s Wisdom. And God’s Wisdom was itself understood to be God, as we have seen. So too Jesus in Paul. One of the most debated verses in the Pauline letters is Romans 9:5. Scholars dispute how the verse is to be translated. What is clear is that Paul is talking about the advantages given to the Israelites, and he indicates that the “fathers” (that is, the Jewish patriarchs) belong to the Israelites, and “from them is the Christ according to the flesh, the one who is God over all, blessed forever, amen.” Here, Christ is “God over all.” This is a very exalted view.
But some translators prefer not to take the passage as indicating that Christ is God and do so by claiming that it should be translated differently, to say first something about Christ and then, second, to give a blessing to God. They translate the verse like this: “from them is the Christ according to the flesh. May the God who is over all be blessed forever, amen.” The issues of translation are highly complex, and different scholars have different opinions. The matter is crucial. If the first version is correct, then it is the one place in all of Paul’s letters where he explicitly calls Jesus God.
But is it correct? My view for many years was that the second translation was the right one and that the passage does not call Jesus God. My main reason for thinking so, though, was that I did not think that Paul ever called Jesus God anywhere else, so he probably wouldn’t do so here. But that, of course, is circular reasoning, and I think the first translation makes the best sense of the Greek, as other scholars have vigorously argued.13 It is worth stressing that Paul does indeed speak about Jesus as God, as we have seen. This does not mean that Christ is God the Father Almighty. Paul clearly thought Jesus was God in a certain sense—but he does not think that he was the Father. He was an angelic, divine being before coming into the world; HE WAS THE ANGEL OF THE LORD; he was eventually exalted TO BE EQUAL WITH GOD AND WORTHY OF ALL OF GOD’S HONOR AND WORSHIP. And so I now have no trouble recognizing that in fact Paul could indeed flat-out call Jesus God, as he appears to do in Romans 9:5.
If someone AS EARLY in the Christian tradition as Paul can see Christ AS AN INCARNATE DIVINE BEING, it is no surprise that the same view emerges later in the tradition. Nowhere does it emerge more clearly or forcefully than in the Gospel of John. (Ibid., pp. 266-269; bold and capital emphasis ours)
Pay close attention how Ehrman candidly acknowledges that Paul and some of the earliest Christians believed that Jesus is the divine Angel of Yahweh, the Incarnation of God’s own Wisdom, and the Agent whom God used to create all things, who was then highly exalted by God after his resurrection to become equal with the Father and worthy of receiving the exact same honor and worship that God himself receives.
With the foregoing in perspective, could Ehrman be any clearer that certain NT authors do in fact affirm that Jesus is both Yahweh God Incarnate and equal to Yahweh God the Father in power, glory, honor, majesty and worship?
Lord Jesus willing, we will be posting more articles on Ehrman contradicting himself in the near future.
Who is this Son of Man? A Review of My Debate with Dr. Bart Ehrman (Part 1) http://credohouse.org/blog/who-is-this-son-of-man-a-review-of-my-debate-with-dr-bart-ehrman-part-1, (Part 2) http://credohouse.org/blog/who-is-this-son-of-man-a-review-of-my-debate-with-dr-bart-ehrman-part-2